Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Teaching Tutors

This year I initiated a tutoring program at the high school my children attended. Several student volunteers from Covenant Day High School as well as adults from Christ Covenant Church have been meeting weekly with 12 elementary school students to provide homework assistance. The children have required help with a variety of academic needs and flexibility has been an indispensable part of making the program work. Along the way I have learned the art of training individuals who cared enough to give up an afternoon a week, but weren't sure how to translate that concern into effective tutoring. With an emphasis on helping students learn how to solve problems themselves, here are some strategies which we improvised as needs surfaced:

  • When a kindergarten student didn't bring in a book to read or homework to complete, I encouraged his tutor, a high school freshman, to help the student compose a simple story. With that idea, the kindergartner enjoyed dictating and helping to write several sentences.
  • Creating math drawings supplemented flash cards and helped students to "get" multiplication tables.
  • Tutors needed to learn how to stretch their students' writing. For example, an adult sat and watched a child write a simple paragraph about a book he had read without providing any input. Although the sentences were adequate, words were misspelled, sentence syntax needed improvement, and there was a repetitious overuse of pronouns. The adult needed to see these problems herself in order to provide correction and instruction.
  • Tutors frequently needed to be reminded to let their students read (and to not read for them!). Similarly, tutors needed to make sure the students comprehended what they had read. Reluctant readers can be coaxed to read aloud by taking turns—the student one page, the tutor the next. Readers also took turns reading different characters' dialogue.
  • When reviewing spelling words tutors needed to find out if the student knew the word's meaning.

    For more information on training tutors, see:

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Wikis, Word Choice, & Red Fonts—the Revision Wave of the Future

“Maryanne walked into the room and looked around. She was surprised that no one noticed her.” Steve Johnson (pictured here) read the sentences that were projected on the screen and turned to the 6th-grade class. “Pretty boring, isn’t it?” Everyone in the class nodded their agreement. “I wouldn’t want to keep reading, would you?”
A chorus of voices concurred with his analysis. “Can you help me make it better?” he asked. “Let’s see if we can jazz it up.”
With that introduction, Steve Johnson, technology facilitator at Washington Street School in Rockingham, NC, hooked his students into the fun process of digital revision. I was there observing him pilot the technology mini-lessons he wrote, which will be incorporated into the next edition of Teaching the Story. Five hours later, 75 students had learned about a wiki, practiced word-processing skills, discovered the nuances associated with word choice, worked collaboratively, and started on their way to becoming better writers—and had fun every minute.
First, Johnson projected a page from Wikipedia on the screen and discussed how these were Internet sites which could be edited by anyone. Opening the Wiki page, he projected the boring sentence about Maryanne onto the screen and invited students to edit it. With sometimes-comic attempts to outdo one another, students tried out different action verbs while Mr. Johnson egged them on. (“Did she stroll? Saunter? Creep? Smash?) As the students played with replacing vague pronouns and nouns, (the room, no one) with specific nouns (Her bedroom? Her parent’s bedroom? Who didn’t notice her? Her younger twin brothers? Her parents?) and by asking, “Why didn’t anyone notice her?” Johnson prompted the class to picture what Maryanne was doing and where she was doing it. While he demonstrated how to line through a word and add a new word in red, he engaged students in a running dialogue about how word changes take stories in different directions.
The students got the picture and were ready to play with sentences themselves. Johnson directed the class to go to the Washington Street Wiki and gave them their password for access purposes. On separate pages, he had already written six boring sentences. Working in small groups, students were each assigned a sentence to revise. As Johnson and I walked around the room, we encouraged the students to “show, not tell” through vivid verbs, specific nouns, and figurative language. Asking them, “Can you see it? Hear it? Feel it? Touch it?” (some of Nancy Atwell’s favorite questions) helped them become more concrete and specific with their descriptions
Before the end of the 70 minute period, each group had the opportunity to read their revised sentences to the class. By the end of the day, three groups of students had worked in Johnson’s computer lab. The final group was able to view how other classes had revised the same sentences, further illustrating that there wasn’t one “right” answer. When you visit the site, click on “Sidebar” and then on one of the teacher’s names, such as “McInnis-Red Pencil.” You’ll see how these engaged 6th graders revised, played with words and red fonts, and came up with original ideas. As Johnson said, “One good sentence is a story waiting to happen.”
So, where was Miss Maryanne and who didn’t notice her? Check out this class’s revision:
Maryanne went stomped into the room The Oval Office. She looked around and was surprised that the Secret Service didn't notice her. A thick, green ooze wound its way out the open office window.
Red Font. The revision wave of the future.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Check this out!

A friend notified me that Teaching the Story received a great review on the Education Book Review website. And while you're surfing around, check out this write-up of my February visit at Holy Family University in the Tri-Lite newspaper. Technorati Tags:
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Monday, April 7, 2008

Is the cup half-empty or half-full?

On April 4th The Charlotte Observer ran an article with the headline, "Students score well in writing" reporting better than average scores for local eighth graders on the 2007 national writing test. When you look closely, the statistics aren't as exciting as the headline indicates. At closer inspection, you'll find that if all races and income levels are included, only 31% of local eighth-graders were rated proficient on the exam —this matches the national rate. Although 52 % of white students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools were rated proficient as compared to less than 40% of their white public-school peers nationwide and in the Carolinas, I'm not celebrating. (For the full report, go to The Nation's Report Card.)

Perhaps this is (relatively) good news for our local school district, but I'm sorry, I don't find these statistics anything to be jumping for joy about. What about the 69% of eighth grade students across the country who aren't meeting this level of proficiency? What about the remaining 48% in Charlotte Mecklenburg?

The "basic" rating, earned by a solid majority of students regardless of location, race, or income, indicates only a partial mastery of grade-level writing. As the Observer reported and the statistics indicate, "proficient writing, defined as solid performance and competency on challenging subjects, was much rarer."

What's the problem here? As an educator involved in teaching writing skills, I speak with lots of teachers around the country. I think there are several weak links in the educational chain. First, I find that almost all teachers feel a great pressure to "teach to the test." So although an argument can be made that at least class time is being devoted to writing, I wonder how much of this preparation (with its concomitant pressure on teachers whose salaries can be tied to their students' performance), is rote or truly teaches the craft of writing. (See the International Reading Association's position paper for more information.)

I believe that writing skills should be developed from a strong foundation of reading and from analytical thinking. Reading has been replaced with playing video games, surfing the Internet (which at least involves more reading skills than video games) watching movies and TV, or competing in sports, than they do reading. Reading MUST be encouraged, supported, and reinforced by parents and educators. Second, I think we don't adequately challenge kids to think critically. Writing involves thinking. Whether fiction or nonfiction, every piece of solid writing requires the author to generate original thoughts. As much as possible, teachers need to be supported in encouraging students of all ages to think for themselves. This doesn't need to be fancy. An author friend of mine, who is a former teacher, said that when students brought a paper for her to read and asked, "What do you think of this?" she'd turn the question around and ask, "What do you think about it?" Critical thinking isn't an educational quick fix; it starts with engaging students mind's rather than being satisfied with rote responses.

Here's my word for the day: metacognition- the ability to reflect on one's own learning experience. Let's teach it. Let's model it. Let's do it ourselves.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

For All Writers & Writers-to-Be

My Saturday mornings are incomplete without reading James J. Kilpatrick's column, "The Writer's Art." I just found his on-line column, "Covering the Courts & The Writer's Art." No waiting around for Saturday anymore! If you're a writer, you'll appreciate Kilpatrick's succinct style. If you're a middle school or high school teacher, assign this column as required reading. His humor and knowledge of the English language won't disappoint you.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Things that Make a Writer’s Heart Race

I had sat just down at my computer on Tuesday afternoon when I heard a "plunk" at my front door. I opened it to find a package with the familiar Honesdale, Pa. return address. I couldn't imagine what it could be. I had already received the article of the month award from Highlights magazine for "Paperweight Magic," my piece about internationally acclaimed artist, Paul Stankard. Trembling, I opened the package. When I saw that it was another pewter plaque I first thought that the editors must have made a mistake and sent me a duplicate award. Surprised is too small a word to convey how I felt when I realized that my article had also received the "Arts Feature of the Year" award for 2007.

Believe me, it took a long time for my heart rate to come back to normal.

Check out Stankard's work on his website and you'll see why I concluded the article with: "Paul Stankard has two mottoes: 'Make it well' and 'Never stop learning.' Following those mottoes has allowed Paul Stankard to make magic from colored-glass rods—it's a magic you must see to believe."

It was an honor to communicate that magic to children through the pages of one of my childhood favorites, Highlights Magazine.Technorati Tags:
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